"And that's episode 209, kids. Take care of yourself out there."
Jason clicked the Pause button.
"You sound like Kermit, motherfucker. Wanna try that again?" he grumbled.
The empty RV had no response, so Jason cleared his throat and clicked Pause again.
"And that's Episode 209, week of November 2, 2015. Take care of yourselves out there, kids. You never know who's watching."
Better, Jason thought. Good enough for the free episode, anyway.
Jason checked the timecode: an hour and fourteen minutes. Not bad. It'd come down a bit in editing, of course, but he was surprised he'd been able to squeeze over an hour out of Peter Kurten. The guy wasn't boring -- he was a monster, actually -- but he hadn't been able to dig up much while researching The Vampire of Düsseldorf. The data he did find was often sketchy and contradictory; although Jason had to admit he'd rushed this one. Too much driving last week, too much time staring at the road rather than at the screen.
He'd make it up in the premium episode, though. Later that day, he had an interview scheduled with a junior professor at the University of Berlin who'd written extensively about Kurten. Their Skype call was at 8pm in Berlin -- 1 pm Central, so he had a few hours.
Wait, is this even the Central time zone I'm in? he asked himself.
It was. A quick check on nist.time.gov confirmed that he was, indeed, still in central time, but just barely.
Panama City, Florida wasn't his final destination for this leg of the trip, but it was as good a place as any to hole up for the day and knock out the podcast stuff. With any luck, he'd be back on the road by dark, heading south.
He had a couple of hours to kill, a situation he hated. He'd gotten up at five and run two miles, come back and recorded the week's free episode, and caught up on email and tweets. Still three hours until the Berlin call. Too early for the one meal of the day, too much work to find a local diner to hang out in and suck down coffee.
Jason logged into his subscription portal and checked the numbers. A little over 1,200 monthly subscribers at $5 each, up just a few from the day before. After the subscription service and the government got their chunks, he did OK... better than he'd ever done at a real job, anyway.
Of course, Jason had no illusions as to why he had as many people paying to hear him talk as he did. It wasn't his stupid Kermit voice. He probably wasn't even that interesting on his best day, and his "premium" subscriber services consisted mainly of him rambling on even more, occasionally broken up with interviews with people even weirder than he was.
No, Jason knew why people listened week after week, and why far too many of them paid for the privilege.
In the worst possible way and in the most questionable subculture out there on the Internet, Jason had become a celebrity.
Not only was he the last victim of the Brier Creek slasher, he was the only one who'd survived.
That would have been enough to endear him to all the murder-heads floating around the digital ether, but there was one more facet to the story that cemented him as a legend to them.
Jason hadn't just survived. Jason was the man who had killed the Brier Creek Slasher.
* * *
The interview had gone well -- better than most of his interviews tended to go, actually. Ulrike, the professor in Berlin, was actually the great-granddaughter of one of the original detectives on the Vampire of Düsseldorf case (which Jason might have known if he hadn't half-assed the research on this episode). She had all of the original notes and case files stored digitally, and intimated that she might share them with Jason if he ever did a Part 2 on Peter Kurten. The premium episode was shaping up to be far better than the free one.
A good interview helped to put Jason in a better mood, and the early November weather in Panama City was perfectly pleasant. Granted, a KOA Kampground wasn't the most scenic spot for a stroll, but it was better than sitting around in the Winnebago for hours on end hunched over his laptop editing. A break and some radiated Vitamin D would probably do him good.
Jason couldn't easily remember the last time he'd gone on a walk just to walk. Sure, he ran miles almost every morning, but that wasn't recreational. That was functional. Necessary. Unavoidable.
Once, in Arizona, the RV had just stopped dead on the road between Tucson and Phoenix. It wasn't out of gas, the check-engine light hadn't come on, nothing -- it had just stopped working. Jason had walked for about an hour through flat, featureless desert before finally coming on a town that seemed to only have a gas station, a single house, and a prison. That was a year or more ago, and that was the last time he remembered "going for a walk," though that wasn't recreational, either.
About fifteen minutes and three-quarters of a mile into his walk, Jason remembered why he didn't often just stroll around for fun. Walking didn't give him enough to occupy his mind; that meant his thoughts were free to go in any direction they wanted, and that wouldn't do at all. Jason turned around and quickened his pace.
Focus on something. Next week's episode. Possible routes to Tampa that avoid all Interstates. Optimization of your weight workouts to increase total tonnage pushed per week rather than reps. Anything.
"Civilize the mind and make savage the body."
Jason was pretty sure the quote came from Mao Tze Tung, but a good quote was a good quote. 22-year-old Jason probably would've gotten that tattooed somewhere, probably in inaccurate Chinese characters that actually said "Guangzhou Heavy Machinery Corporation, Model 413." This version of Jason, though, 35-year old Jason, never really stuck around anywhere long enough to find a reputable tattoo shop.
He made it back to his assigned Kampground spot in significantly less time than his initial journey had taken, but he didn't have to make it back to his RV before he saw something was wrong.
Two Panama City black-and-whites -- still the jellybean-shaped Ford Crown Victorias, not the hard-angled Dodge Chargers most departments had adopted -- were parked a few spots away from Jason's, lights on and flashing. Another Crown Vic, this one gunmetal-gray, was parked between the two cruisers. Uniformed officers were taping off the area around one of those ridiculous, tour-bus-sized RVs. A fortyish, buzz-cut gym rat in a too-tight sport coat and mismatched khakis was on his iPhone, talking to someone too quietly for Jason to hear. He was jotting down notes on a tiny spiral notepad while he talked, balancing the phone between his neck and his shoulder like Jason hadn't seen anyone but cops -- specifically, homicide cops -- do in years.
Those phones come with hands-free units, Jason thought, slowing his pace considerably. Wonder what cops have against the headphones?
Normally, if Jason saw a scene like the one he was approaching, he'd be in his vehicle and down the road in a heartbeat. This time, though, that wouldn't be a option. His RV was too close to the crime scene for him to jet without being suspicious. And, as he approached his vehicle, the no-necked detective looked up and locked eyes with him.
Jason sighed and prepared himself for yet another conversation with yet another local cop.
Those conversations happened with alarming frequency, and they never went well.
There were three modes cops tended to approach with, in Jason's experience. The first, cold and businesslike, was the least common. Second, and all too common if they'd run his ID first, was barely contained aggression. Those first two modes didn't bother him, even the aggression; that was just a byproduct of feeling like your life was constantly in danger, so Jason understood that.
The third mode was the one you had to worry about: the overly friendly cop. Jason only had problems with the local constabulary seven times of ten, but each time, it was the overly friendly cop who hauled him downtown and threw him into an interrogation room.
"Hey, bro, how are we doin' today?" the gym-rat cop asked. His smile seemed genuine, so Jason immediately started to worry.
"Doing okay," Jason said, trying to keep his tone as even as possible.
"So...any idea what happened here today?" the cop asked.
Jason knew what he should have done. He should have asked if he was suspected of a crime. He should have called his lawyer in Houston, the one he kept on retainer for instances just such as this one. He should've refused to answer any questions. That was what he should have done.
Against his better judgment, Jason decided to play the odds. Mostly, if he was just honest and polite, told the police what he knew (which in this case wasn't a hell of a lot), the cops would usually just get some contact information from him and never use it.
"Couldn't tell you, detective," Jason said, subtly shifting his posture so that his arms hung at his sides, slightly apart from his body, palms facing out. It was a trick he'd read somewhere in the course of his internet wanderings: adopt a nonthreatening posture, and people see you as honest and open.
He had no idea if it would work, but it was worth a shot.
"Did you know your neighbor over here in 15A?" the detective asked, nodding slightly in the direction of the crime scene.
He didn't answer Jason's question, but the word "did" -- past tense -- answered it well enough. Definitely homicide.
"No, sir. Just got here this morning, kept to myself most of the time."
Jason mentally kicked himself. Saying he "kept to himself" was almost the most serial-killer thing he could've said, except from possibly "seemed like such a normal guy."
If the detective noticed the odd phrasing, he didn't let it show on his face, which meant he was either oblivious or very, very good at his job. Jason hoped for the former.
"Oh, hey, 'fore I forget, mind if I get some ID from you?"
Jason really didn't want to give his identification, and legally, he didn't have to, but he was already committed to trying to nice his way out of this one.
"Sure thing," he said. "Wallet is in my right rear pocket. I'm reaching for it now."
The detective nodded. Jason pulled out his wallet, fished his license from a sea of gas-station receipts, and handed it to the detective.
"Jason Collins. Texas boy, eh? Still live on Brazos Road in Terlingua?"
"That's my legal residence, yes, sir. I mostly live in my RV these days, but I do have a house at that address."
The "house" was really little more than a shed, sitting on five acres of land Jason had bought four years ago for $2000. There was no heat, no power; only a mailbox and a tiny building that looked, from the road, like someone could live there.
"Terlingua. Never heard of that before. Whereabouts is that?"
"About fifteen miles northeast of the Mexican border," Jason said.
"What brings you over Panama City way?"
"Traveling. Just passing through."
"Oh? Where you headed?"
"Haven't figured that out yet."
Jason was being completely honest and transparent, and that was a problem, because the truth made him sound sketchy as hell, like a drifter. Which, Jason had to admit, he kind of was.
So when the detective asked him to have a seat in the back of his car -- to "get out of the heat," as he said, though it was maybe 75 degrees out -- while he ran Jason's information, Jason wasn't terribly surprised.
He was a little more surprised when the detective let him out a couple of minutes later, though.
They were a tense couple of minutes. Jason saw the detective on his phone again, still cradled between his neck and his shoulder like a time traveler from 1998. The call was less than a minute -- probably giving my information to have someone back at the office run it, Jason figured.
Then, another man had approached the detective. Thin, older, dressed in brown cargo pants and a white, short-sleeved button-up, this guy didn't read as a cop, not to Jason. The thin man had a few sheets of white paper, folded lengthwise, that he handed the detective as they spoke. The detective nodded over towards Jason's Winnebago, and the thin man turned around to look. When he turned back, he was shaking his head.
None of this seemed like positive progress to Jason, but his life up to this moment had necessarily instilled a healthy sense of pessimism.
The thin man, Mr. Not-a-Cop, looked somehow vaguely familiar to Jason, but he didn't look friendly. Not a cop, but not an ally, either.
After another moment's conversation, the detective picked up his phone again. This time, there was some scribbling in the notepad, though not a ton. This call was short, too; probably under two minutes. When it was done, the detective put his phone back into his coat pocket, said a few words to the thin man, and walked back to the cruiser.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Collins," the detective said, still all smiles. "You can hop out of the car if you want to."
Jason got out of the backseat, slowly, still keeping his palms exposed whenever possible. He still didn't have a great read on where this situation was headed, but he wasn't going to escalate it if he could help it.
"So, I talked to the camp manager," the detective said, "says you showed up late last night, just like you indicated."The manager, Jason thought. Of course he's the manager, idiot. You talked to him at about 1 a.m. when you showed up.
Paranoia wasn't a habit he'd actively cultivated, but it was a significant part of his psychological profile these days nonetheless. Though Jason preferred not to think of it as paranoia; paranoia was counterproductive.
In the city always a reflection, in the woods always a sound.
Hypervigilance wasn't counterproductive. Hypervigilance kept you alive.
"So, you're obviously not involved with all...that," the detective said, waving vaguely in the direction of the massive RV.
"So what did happen?" Jason asked.
The detective studied him for a moment, squinting as he looked into Jason's eyes.
"Remember, I ran your ID, so I know who you are. Dispatcher back at the office listens to your radio thing. I'm not sure I want this ending up on the air."
Rather than explain how podcasts weren't on the radio and how they didn't go out over the airwaves -- the few times he'd tried to explain that to anyone, it'd just been a waste of time -- Jason just shook his head.
"I do historical stuff. Serial killers. Cult murders. Not looking for a scoop here, just curious. You can tell me to fuck off if you want. Totally fine."
The "you can tell me to fuck off" comment loosened the detective right up. He relaxed visibly and smiled. Of course, that's exactly what the comment was designed to do.
"Well, this goes no further than you and me, but a guy got killed in there a couple nights back. Some crazy shit written on the walls."
Part of Jason -- the research part, the part that had a show -- wanted to ask more. How had the guy been killed? What was written on the walls?
The larger part, though, was concerned with self-preservation. And that part told him to quit while he was ahead.
"Yikes. Good luck with that, detective."
"Yeah. I've got your info; appreciate it if you'll make yourself available if I have any further questions?"
"Here, take my card," the detective said, digging into his shirt pocket and handing Jason an off-white business card.
Jason glanced at it, but didn't bother to encode any of the data on the card. He'd never hear from the guy again anyway. He put the card into his back pocket, to be added to the collection in the desk drawer in the Winnebago eventually.
Jason turned to walk back to his RV, and he'd almost made it before he heard something he really didn't want to hear.
"Hey, hold up a second," the detective said. "My dispatcher says you really know about this murder stuff."
It wasn't the first time Jason had heard the words that came next -- and every time, he hoped it would be the last time he heard them.
"You want to take a look at the crime scene?"
Jason really did want to see the crime scene, and not just out of professional curiosity. He wasn't wild about the idea of seeing it with Detective Creatine Powder, but if it got him a look inside...
"Sure. I could take a quick look."
"Stays between you and me, of course."
If Jason had been suspicious before, his alarm bells were really ringing now. This cop had miraculously changed his opinion about Jason after maybe 120 seconds of conversation with his dispatcher? Not very likely. Something about the situation smelled like a trap, and Jason wanted to be sure he kept his eyes open and his ears tuned in.
"Here you go, hoss. Glove up," the detective said, handing a pair of latex gloves over to Jason. Before putting them on, Jason quickly brushed out his beard with his hands -- no reason to have a stray hair or some skin flakes drop off in an active crime scene. He put the gloves on and followed the detective into the RV.
"'S okay," the detective told the uniformed officer just inside the door. "Civilian consultant."
The officer nodded.
"Gonna ask that you hang back here in the doorway," Detective No-Neck said over his shoulder to Jason. "Crime techs are still inbound, so we can't have you inadvertently moving anything."
"Oh, yeah. Totally understand," Jason said. It felt less like a trap now, but only slightly.
He'd been so tuned in to his own paranoia -- or hypervigilance, rather -- that he hadn't immediately seen the scene right in front of him. As soon as he saw it, though, the realization slammed into his mind with an almost tangible jolt. He'd seen this scene before.
Not this exact scene, of course. But he'd seen pictures of one so similar that this one had to be a copy of it. There were some missing pieces, but the staging was clear.
One victim, male, shot in the temple, laying in bed; killed in his sleep, Jason was pretty sure. The "crazy shit" on the walls the detective mentioned earlier was a pentagram, scrawled in lipstick, along with the words "Jack the Knife."
"Dumb motherfucker signed his crime scene," the detective said, pointing to the lipstick scrawls on the wall.
Do I tell him? Jason thought.
On the one hand, telling the detective that he knew exactly what this was, and what message the killer was trying to communicate, would only make Jason himself seem super-suspicious. He'd just gotten to the point where he was pretty sure the detective didn't think Jason was involved, and telling him what he knew would definitely wreck the fuck out of that train.
On the other hand, a man was dead. Jason had information that might help the police find the killer. Sure, they might figure it out eventually anyway, but it's entirely possible they wouldn't see it. Not many people were as obsessed with murder as Jason, even professionals who worked in the murder business. Even cops didn't have a twice-weekly podcast called "Murdershow."
When did civic responsibility override self-preservation?
The answer, apparently, was now.
"That's not him signing is work. It's a reference to another murder," Jason said, sighing. He was almost sure of a trip down to the station now.
"Huh? What are you talking about?"
"Depending on how much of a purist your killer is, I'm guessing you'll find a .25 caliber bullet in your victim's skull. The pentagram and the name aren't his -- Richard Ramirez wrote them on the wall at a murder in San Francisco in 1985."
"Who's Richard Ramirez?" the uniformed cop at the door asked. The detective shot his officer a look, but he was probably glad the officer had asked instead of him.
"Serial Killer, Los Angeles mostly, 1985. My guess is you'll find a shoe print, and it'll come back to a size 12 Avia, possibly one period-appropriate, again depending on how much of a purist your guy is."
"How do you know all this?" the detective asked. He didn't reach for his cuffs, but Jason could tell he wanted to.
"It's my job," Jason said.
Jason wasn't psychic, but he knew the words that were coming next before the detective even opened his mouth.
"Would you mind coming to the station with me? Talk about this a little more?"
Jason hated it when he was right.